Monday, May 01, 2006

Sopranos Hits Its Stride

It wasn’t so long ago that I was bellyaching about the slow, strange pace of The Sopranos this season. It wasn’t really until the fifth episode, “Mr. and Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request” that things started to get interesting for me. Tony was released from the boredom of his bizarre coma world and began to face the reality of the power vaccum that had been created in his absence. The disintegration of Johnny Sac’s image coupled with Tony’s own fears about his personal weakness made for an important and compelling episode. Of course the biggest event of the episode was the run in between Vito and a couple mobsters at a gay club. I thought the episode was good, but portions of it dragged a bit; still I felt hopeful about the future of the season.

The sixth episode “Live Free or Die” continued to give us a payoff after a season and a half worth of build up on Vito’s secret. The Vito subplot really exhibits the power and cleverness of the Sopranos writers. I for one, am putty in their hands when it comes to their portrayal of characters. I never really liked Vito before this season, most likely because the writers didn’t want me too. He was made to look like a mean spirited, sneaky guy who would kill family if necessary and stab his boss in the back. Even when they threw in the seed for Vito’s preferences last season, it still wasn’t in the context of making him a sympathetic character. A few episodes back he was plotting ways to sneak extra money while Tony was in the hospital. But somehow in episode six, Live Free or Die, I suddenly found myself rooting for Vito. Once outed, Vito was in a very compromising position, and this added a dimension of vulnerability and despair to his character. Whereas two weeks ago I wanted to kick him for trying to withhold collection money from Carmella, I was now suddenly hoping that he could find peace and quiet in the New Hampshire countryside. There was something strangely touching about watching him discover what life could be like if he lived in a more tolerant community.

Last week’s episode “The Luxury Lounge” had some great scenes, but was a mixed bag for me. I loved the plot with Artie, in part because I just think he’s a great character, and I like that he’s been around since the beginning of the show. Artie is such a melodramatic and tortured guy, and yet he’s a chef at a resturant, not a mob boss. He has such a unique relationship with Tony, and the juxtapositions and collisions of their two worlds are often humorous and even poignant at times. I also like Benny’s character, played by good old Max Casella, who I will forever associate with Doogie Howser, Ed Wood, and of course Newsies. (By the way, while googling Casella, I came across some Newsies fan fiction …who knew?) The conflict between Benny and Artie played out unexpectedly; I really thought Artie was going off the deep end when he went to Benny’s house to confront him about the credit card scam. Yet again Tony intervened to save Artie, but I’m curious to see how this new tension resolves itself in the future. The portion of the episode that I wasn’t crazy about was Christopher’s “business” trip to LA. Sometimes when the Sopranos go to Hollywood it’s fun and funny, but at other times it’s forced and smug. I thought this episode was one of those latter occasions. It was funny to see Christopher foisted onto Ben Kingsley with his pitch, but the idea of the luxury lounge itself seemed pointless. Sure, rich people get all sorts of things for free, and it’s a bit ridiculous and annoying, but what did that have to do with anything? Christopher’s enthusiam for the merchandise handed out was curious because one would assume he could nab any of those fancy watches or fashionable sunglasses when they fell off the back of the truck. The scenes of Christopher in LA, were surely meant to show that his addiction problem was on the rise again and to plant the seeds of conflict between his mob business and movie business. But by the fourth time he had an awkward run in with Ben Kingsley it got a little old. A good episode, but I wasn’t enthralled by it.

Last night’s episode “Johnny Cakes” was the best episode of the season by far, and in my mind, the strongest in quite some time. There were so many elements coming into play here, so many vital moments and decisions for characters and themes woven in with each other seamlessly. First off, I loved the underlying motif of globalization that ran through the entire episode. The scene with the men from Tony’s crew in the would be Starbuck’s and the issue of the Jamba Juice buyout were great because they reflected not only the current changes in our society, but the way that these changes might affect the mafia. After all the mob could be considered one of the oldest mom and pop institutions around. Throughout the episode Tony was faced with a bevy of important decisions, critical to the direction of his character. The fact that he walked out on Julianna, the real estate beauty, was huge. Never in the history of The Sopranos, has Tony’s conscious really kicked in over his perpetual unfaithfulness to Carmella. Sure he’s felt some guilt in the past, but it’s never stopped him from acting on his impulses. The temptations for Tony in this episode were neatly layered over one another. He had the choice of cheating on Carmella, and forgetting not only his marriage vows but all the recent outpouring of love and support she has given him; he chose not to. But Tony didn’t get away completely clean. When faced with the choice, by the same woman, to give up part of the culture and heritage of his neighborhood for some extra cash, Tony was torn, but eventually gave in when the monetary compensation was great enough. Both these choices were ones that resonated with the very core of who Tony is. As he struggled with what was right and wrong, he also had to watch his son AJ do the same. In this episode we saw more of AJ’s tough guy posturing and rude antics, but we also saw the underbelly of what drives his behavior. It was interesting to see AJ at a club, meek and inexperienced, feeling that the only thing he had to trade on was his family name. His attempt to kill Junior was pathetic, but also sad, and the scene that followed in the parking lot after with Tony was moving. There they were, father and son standing in front of one another. AJ wanting to be like his father, and do right by him, but Tony wishing to eradicate the traces he saw of himself in his son. His desire for AJ to be a “nice guy” –not one immersed in the crime underworld was made tragic in the face of his realization that AJ probably would not be able to escape the lifestyle he, himself had led. Vito too, was faced with huge decisions, as he struggled with his identity, unsure of how to deal with his feelings for another man. The better things get for Vito, the more I clench my teeth, because it seems like an inevitablity that he if he does find true happiness, it will be only a matter of time before he is hunted down and killed by his former friends and associates.

Overall I thought it was a terrific episode, and it seems like things are really starting to get rolling for the grand finale.


Blogger DoorFrame said...

Vito is TOTALLLY gay.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous crazymonk said...

Here, here. It was a great episode. And so damn tense and compelling.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

Thanks, by the way, for the continuing opportunity to let me chime in on all your commentary.

First, via this commentary from I see Little Carmine in a whole new light. Turns out his character and knack for malapropisms is (might be) based on George W. Bush. Mangling dialogue has been a running gag through the entire Sopranos series (every character has a turn) but no one does it so often and with the panache of Little Carmine.

Secondly, I was interested by what you said about Tony and A.J.'s encounter in the parking lot. "His desire for AJ to be a “nice guy”", you said. What I saw was Tony in full-blown denial, repeatedly telling his son that he (AJ) was a nice guy, in flagrant disregard of AJ's history. I strongly suspect that deep down (maybe even not so deep), Tony knows the truth of it. Tony's always been the guy to give AJ the full benefit of the doubt but here he goes way beyond. I thought this said a lot about Tony's desperation as a father.

It was a very good scene where AJ goes to visit his Uncle. Again, since you know that it's the last season, you figure anything might happen and you get a real sense of peril for both AJ and Uncle Junior and you watch the slow entrance of AJ with creeping tension and a churning stomach.

I thought that there was some quasi-ironical part to the writing where Vito gets the guy and Tony rejects the girl.

Finally, back to Luxury Lounge, I thought the entire price of admission was worth the jaw-dropping moment where Lauren Bacall ... Lauren Bacall!!! ... gets punched in the face.

Note that when she gets up, it's her arm that hurts.

5:51 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

No --thank you for being a faithful reader and participating in the forum. Interesting points on Little Carmine, I really have never given him too much thought before to be honest. Sometimes the exterior mob guys particularly connected to NY etc. get to be a little too much for me. Though I have always appreciated the malapropisms and misusage of vocab that characters do time and time again on the show.

As for A.J. and Tony, I see your point. I do think Tony is in denial, and that he would like to see his son as a "nice guy" --but I also do believe that he would really like that to be the case. I'm not sure if it really has sunken in that it is too late to do anything to yank AJ out of this mentality.

On another note, I feel really bad for Junior. I mean I know he shot Tony, but he clearly didn't mean to. Now he has to spend the last days of his life stuck in some horrible mental instutitution completely ostracized from the rest of his family. It's really sad.

9:50 AM  

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